THE BAPTISM OF DESIRE
Some Examples From Church Teaching
Scripture, the Saints and the Magisterium
The doctrine of Baptism of desire and blood is repeatedly evinced in both Sacred Scripture and the writings of the Saints and Doctors of the Church. Finally, there are the official pronouncements of the Magisterium. These latter are found in the Council of Trent, and subsequent catechisms and Papal encyclicals right up until the Second Vatican Council.
Thus there can be no doubt as to the theological orthodoxy of the matter. We see that contrary to Fr. Feeney's assertion that Baptism of Desire was primarily the brainstorm of liberal clerics at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884 (from which we derive the Baltimore Catechism), the teaching goes right back to the very roots of our faith. The evidence will be treated in four parts followed by a concluding section:
1) Implicit Statements
2) Explicit Statements
3) Teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas
4) Teaching of the Magisterium
5) Concluding Remarks on Baptism and Salvation
In Sacred Scripture Our Lord alludes frequently to the internal dispositions which must precede the outward manifestation of faith. In verses John 3:3-8, Christ speaks of Baptism five times but Baptism of water only once. For instance, He mentions the man "who is born of the spirit" (6, 8). St. Thomas Aquinas discussed the verse concerning Baptism by water (Jn 3:5) in the following context:
As it is written (I King 16:7), "Man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart." Now a man who desires to be "born again of water and the Holy Ghost" by Baptism, is regenerated in the heart, though not in body: thus the Apostle says (Rom. 2:29) that "The circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not of men but God."
This implies the inner spiritual rebirth which is the grace signified and produced by the visible sacrament of Baptism. Patristic and catechetical writings likewise insist on the primacy of intention. Tertullian wrote that catechumens should actually defer the sacrament to insure its proper reception, while the Council of Trent admonished that
The faithful are also to be instructed in the necessary dispositions for Baptism. In the first place they must desire and intend to receive it; for as in Baptism we all die to sin and resolve to live a new life, it is fit that it be administered to those only who receive it of their own free will and accord....
The primacy of the spirit is nowhere more plainly expressed than when Cornelius, a Roman centurion, is received into the Church. Note the sequence of events:
While Peter was yet speaking these words, the Holy Ghost fell on all them that heard the word. And the faithful of the circumcision, who came with Peter, were astonished, for that the grace of the Holy Ghost was poured out upon the Gentiles also.... And he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Act. 10:44-48).
The Holy Ghost decended upon an unbaptized man. By contrast, Fr. Feeney emphasized the primacy of the character (e.g. the form) rather than the grace of Baptism. He even referred to it as a thing "of flesh and blood" thereby making the supernatural subservient to the limits of nature.
Fr. Feeney also cites the famous statement of St. Paul: "One Faith, one Baptism" (Eph. 4:5), arguing that there cannot possibly be "other Baptisms." It is certainly true that there is only one sacramental Baptism. Baptisms of desire and blood are not sacraments, but simply fulfill the requirements when the sacrament cannot be received due to extraordinary circumstances. Thus one speaks metaphorically of "different Baptisms" yet they all obtain the same sanctifying grace. In fact, Our Lord spoke of different Baptisms during His public ministry. There was "the Baptism wherewith I am to be baptized" (Lk. 12:50), referring to a Baptism of blood, which was His crucifixion. Describing the descent of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost, he says "For John indeed baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost, not many days hence" (Act. 1:5).
With reference to others, Our Lord said that "Everyone that shall confess Me before men, I will also confess before My Father in Heaven" (Mt. 10:32). This was later taken by many saints as a reference to Baptism of blood in place of water, as undergone by the catechumen martyrs. Finally, one cannot overlook the obvious relevance of the repentant thief, when Christ said: "Amen, I say to thee: this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise!" (Lk. 23:43). This is yet another scriptural example invoked by orthodox theologians in their more explicit statements, as discussed below.
In a broader context, the saints addressed the fact of God's universal Providence, which was known to all men at all times. For example, Pope St. Clement I (c. 95 AD) said in reference to the salvation of Jews and non-Jews prior to Christ's birth:
Let us go through all generations, and learn that in generation and generation the Master has given a place of repentance to those willing to turn to Him. Noah preached repentance, and those who heard him were saved. Jonah preached repentance to the Ninevites; those who repented for their sins appeased God in praying, and received salvation, even though they were aliens of God (Epistle to Corinth, 7.5-7).
St. Justin Martyr (c. 150 AD), the first Christian philosopher and apologist, explained to his pagan listeners that
Christ is the Logos of whom the whole race of men partake. Those who lived according to the Logos are Christians, even if they were considered atheists [but not really atheists], such as, among the Greeks, Socrates and Heraclitus (First Apology, 1.46).
Even more specific is St. Irenaeus
There is one and the same God the Father and His Logos, always assisting the human race, with varied arrangements, to be sure, and doing many things, and saving from the beginning those who are saved, for they are those who love and, according to their generation, follow His Logos (Against Heresies, 4.28.2).
Finally, the Apostle himself, St. Paul, speaks of the Gentiles, who have not the law, yet
Who show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness to them, and their thoughts between themselves accusing, or also defending one another (Rom. 2:15).
It is clear from the foregoing statements that God's providence for, and extension of salvation to, those outside the visible side of the Church (who are nevertheless mystically united to the Church), is by no means incompatible with the Christian ethos. The implicit statements can be said to furnish the theological foundation for the more precise declarations of Church leaders.
One way that false critics oppose these declarations is to cite the much more numerous restrictive statements on Baptism of water. Now, that writings in favor of Baptism of blood and desire are less frequent is hardly surprising. After all, the mission of the Church and Her members is to "go, and teach all nations." If Baptism of desire is an exception, we are thereby encouraged to convert others, since an individual's salvation is much more secure with the graces received in Baptism with water. Certainly, a doctor in a plague-ridden country does not say, "I have a powerful drug which will cure you. You can take it or not. Either way you will live." It is true that some individuals, who do not have access to the drug, may survive the contagion, but the odds are considerably against it. The same is true in our understanding of Baptism of desire.
Keeping the above in mind, there are enough examples to disprove the notion that Baptism of Desire is a "novelty" or an "aberration." Firstly, Baptism of desire was not a "rare" teaching. It is one that has been emphasized and clarified over the centuries, becoming part of the ordinary magisterium. This could hardly be the case if it were a doctrinal oddity which would, if anything, be filtered out and suppressed over time. (An example of this would be the commonly held theological teaching in favor of Limbo for unbaptized infants as against the much rarer and now discarded opinion by some early Christian writers that unbaptized infants suffered the torments of Hell.)
In one of the most important statements on the subject, St. Augustine (City of God, XIII.7) has the following to say of the catechumens who were killed by the pagan Romans before receiving Baptism
For whatever unbaptized persons die confessing Christ, this confession is of the same efficacy for the remission of sins as if they were washed in the sacred font of Baptism. For He Who said, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God," made also an exception in their favor, in that other sentence where He no less absolutely said, "Whosever shall confess me before men, him will I confess also before my Father which is in heaven"; and in another place, "Whosoever will lose his life for my sake, shall find it."
By way of counter-argument, it is said that St. Augustine (and others) lamented the fact that individual catechumens died before receiving Baptism. This is only natural. Lacking the omniscience of God, we are always more certain of a person's salvation when he has received the outward sign of the sacrament. Yet St. Augustine, continuing the passage quoted above, says
For what is more precious than a death by which a man's sins are forgiven, and his merits increased an hundredfold? For those who have been baptized when they could no longer escape death, and have departed this life with all their sins blotted out, have not equal merit with those who did not defer death, though it was in their power to do so, but preferred to end their life by confessing Christ, rather than by denying Him to secure an opportunity of Baptism (emphasis added).
St. Augustine's view was not uncommon. St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote "If anyone does not receive Baptism, he shall not be saved, except the martyrs, who even without the water shall receive the kingdom." Perhaps even more impressive is the statement of St. Cyprian who coined the great axiom, "Outside the church there is no salvation." It was this same saint who wrote that the catechumens
who were caught and killed confessing the Name [of Christ] before they were baptized in the Church... holding the integral Faith and truth of the Church... were not deprived of the sacrament of Baptism, being baptized by the most glorious and excellent Baptism, by which the Lord Himself said he had to be baptized [Lk. 12:50]. That those who are baptized in their own blood and sanctified by their passion were glorified and received the Divine promise, is taught to us by the Lord Himself in the Gospel, when He promised to the thief who believed and confessed [the Faith] that he would be with Him in paradise.
Rigorists may claim, by rather devious logic, that "somehow" these men and women must have obtained Baptism of water in their last moments on earth. If not, then these catechumens went to Hell. Yet to deny Baptism of blood is to impugn the honor of countless holy men and women who are included in the Roman Martyrology. For example, St. Emerentiana (d. 304), was still an unbaptized catechumen when, while praying at the tomb of her foster sister, St. Agnes, she was stoned to death by the pagans.
The most famous early statement in favor of Baptism of desire is found in St. Ambrose's De obitue Valentiniani consolatio (funeral oration for Valentinian). Valentinian II (371-392) was the Roman emperor who had previously supported the Arian heretics. Having abandoned his erroneous beliefs, he invited St. Ambrose to Vienne to baptize him, but was assassinated there by one of his generals before this could be accomplished.
But I hear that you grieve since he [Valentinian] did not receive the sacrament of Baptism. Tell me, what else is in your power but the desire, the petition? But even for a long time he had this desire, that when he came into Italy, he should be baptized, and recently he made known that he wanted to be baptized by me, and so he thought I should be summoned for this reason, before other reasons. Surely because he asked, he received, and hence there is the Scripture: "The just man by whatsoever death he may be overtaken, his soul shall be at rest".... If [martyrs] are washed in their own blood, his devotedness and intention washed him.
The meaning is clear. Yet according to Fr. Feeney (in Thomas Sennott's They Fought the Good Fight, 1987):
Any simple and loving Catholic would understand Saint Ambrose to have meant by this comfort that he hoped Emperor Valentinian had been baptized by somebody, even though he [Saint Ambrose] did not know who it was, and even though there was no official record of it.
This is obviously stretching the point. Since there was "no official record" St. Ambrose clearly assumed the emperor was unbaptized, especially since his murderer gave Valentinian little time to tend to spiritual needs. Otherwise, why would the congregation "grieve" at the news? Why would St. Ambrose insist on the belief that "his devotedness and intention washed him"?
In his De Baptismo, St. Augustine argues for Baptism of blood and, by extension, Baptism of desire while discussing the epistle of St. Cyprian quoted above:
The same blessed Cyprian sees no small proof that suffering can sometimes take the place of Baptism, from the [case of] the thief to whom, though he was not baptized, it was over and over I find that not only suffering for the name of Christ can supply what was lacking of Baptism, but also faith and conversion of heart, if it happens that because of circumstances of time, recourse cannot be had to the celebration of the mystery of Baptism.
Numerous other saints, popes and theologians teism is offered by St. Thomas Aquinas, in his Summa Theologica. This will be cited at length since it is referred to by all learned authorities when treating of doubts on the matter. In IIIa. qu.68 a.2 we read that the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to someone in two ways, either in reality and in desire, or in reality but not in desire. As to the second possibility, St. Thomas says that
the sacrament of Baptism may be wanting to anyone in reality but not in desire: for instance, when a man wishes to be baptized, but by some ill-chance he is forestalled by death before receiving Baptism. And such a man can obtain salvation without being actually baptized, on account of his desire for Baptism, which desire is the outcome of "faith that worketh by charity," whereby God, Whose power is not tied to visible sacraments, sanctifies man inwardly. Hence Ambrose says of Valentinian, who died while yet a catechumen: "I lost him whom I was to regenerate: but he did not lose the grace he prayed for."
As for objections to this teaching, St. Thomas relies on the implicit scriptural statements such as we have cited above.
As it is written (1 Kgs. 16:7), "man seeth those things that appear, but the Lord beholdeth the heart." Now a man who desires to be "born again of water and the Holy Ghost" by Baptism, is regenerated in heart though not in body. thus the Apostle says (Rm. 2:29) that "the circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not of men but of God."
No man obtains eternal life unless he be free from all guilt and debt of punishment. Now this plenary absolution is given when a man receives Baptism, or suffers martyrdom: for which reason is it stated that martyrdom "contains all the sacramental virtue of Baptism," i.e. as to the full deliverance from guilt and punishment. Suppose, therefore, a catechumen to have the desire for Baptism (else he could not be said to die in his good works, which cannot be without "faith that worketh by charity"), such a one, were he to die, would not forthwith come to eternal life, but would suffer punishment for his past sins, "but he himself shall be saved, yet so as by fire" as is stated 1 Cor. 3:15. [This latter comment being a reference to Purgatory.]
The sacrament of Baptism is said to be necessary for salvation in so far as man cannot be saved without, at least, Baptism of desire; "which, with God, counts for the deed" (Augustine, Enarr. in Ps. 57).
Explaining the workings of the sanctifying grace, St. Thomas says that
...Baptism of Water has its efficacy from Christ's Passion, to which a man is conformed by Baptism, and also from the Holy Ghost, as first cause. Now although the effect depends on the first cause, the cause far surpasses the effect, nor does it depend on it. Consequently, a man may, without Baptism of Water, receive the sacramental effect from Christ's Passion, in so far as he is conformed to Christ by suffering for Him. Hence it is written (Apoc. 7:14): "These are they who are come out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes and have made them white in the blood of the Lamb." In like manner a man receives the effect of Baptism by the power of the Holy Ghost, not only without Baptism of Water, but also without Baptism of Blood: forasmuch as his heart is moved by the Holy Ghost to believe in and love God and to repent of his sins: wherefore this is also called Baptism of Repentance. Of this it is written (Is. 4:4): "If the Lord shall wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall wash away the blood of Jerusalem out of the midst thereof, by the spirit of judgment, and by the spirit of burning." Thus, therefore, each of these other Baptisms is called Baptism, forasmuch as it takes the place of Baptism (IIIa. qu.66 a.11).
He then refers to the Good Thief "who was not baptized" with water, but died in a state of grace. Fortunately for the current controversy, the Angelic Doctor once again foresaw the possible objections by doctrinal rigorists. One objection is that since St. Paul says "'One Faith, one Baptism'... there is but one Faith. Therefore there should not be three Baptisms." To which St. Thomas replies
The other two Baptisms are included in the Baptism of Water, which derives its efficacy, both from Christ's Passion and from the Holy Ghost. Consequently for this reason the unity of Baptism is not destroyed.
And to the objection that "none but Baptism of Water is a sacrament. Therefore we should not reckon two other Baptisms." He answered that "a sacrament is a kind of sign." Thus, Baptism of blood and water "are not sacraments" but "are like the Baptism of Water, not, indeed, in the nature of a sign, but in the Baptismal effect." Furthermore, it is interesting that not only does St. Thomas argue for Baptism of blood (martyrdom of an unbaptized person) but claims its superiority over Baptism of water due to its perfectly sacrificial character (IIIa. qu.66 a12).
St. Thomas' writings shed further light on the economy of salvation. According to Fr. Laisney's authoritative study, Baptism of Desire (Angelus Press, 1991):
St. Thomas, in his only question in the whole Summa dealing with the Church (IIIa. qu.8), teaches that union... with Christ is essentially by sanctifying grace with Faith, Hope and Charity.... Those who do not have the Faith are only united with Him "in potentia," i.e. they can become united with Him but are not yet united with Him. Now Baptism of desire is precisely the direct gift of this sanctifying grace, with Faith , Hope and Charity to the soul.
This is possible because "Baptism of desire is precisely the reception of the grace of Baptism without the exterior sign...." By contrast, the followers of Fr. Feeney
Desiring to insist on the necessity of the exterior sign of the sacrament of Baptism.... bestowed upon the character of Baptism what the Popes, Doctors and all the Catholic theologians say of the grace of Baptism.... [In other words, they confuse the outward sign with the grace itself].
How can people be saved without the visible Sacrament? Fr. Laisney answers (with the Magisterium) that God is not bound by the limits of His own creation. The Sacraments were instituted by Him as the primary and ordinary means of salvation, but God is no more limited in the spiritual realm than He is in the physical. This is precisely what St. Thomas teaches in keeping with St. Augustine. It was the latter who said that
...the invisible sanctification has been given and has benefited to some without the visible sacraments [while] the visible sanctification, consisting of the visible sacrament, can exist but not benefit without the invisible sanctification (super Levit. qu. 84).
In this instance, we are reminded of the teaching on confession and penance, viz. that a man who has a mortal sin on his conscience must seek confession from a priest before he dies in order be absolved. Through worthy confession, either perfect or imperfect contrition for his sins will suffice to cleanse him. Otherwise, without confession, one must make an act of perfect contrition before one dies in order to be saved. Thus while the exterior sacrament is a tremendous spiritual aid (without which our remaining in a state of grace remains fraught with grave hazards), nevertheless, God's ultimate criterion is not the outward sign, but the interior act. Fr. Laisney summarizes his study, by saying that
To be saved, it is not only necessary to receive grace from Christ, we must be in Chrvast majority of statements concerning baptism of blood and desire come to us from the Ordinary Magisterium. The Ordinary Magisterium refers to the exercise of the teaching office without a solemn definition being given. This is the case with the day-to-day teaching of bishops in their dioceses, or the greater part of Papal teaching. (Much in these categories, however, has already been defined infallibly.)
The Extraordinary Magisterium refers to a special exercise of their teaching office by either the Pope and bishops together, or the Pope alone, in which a definitive judgment is given. When a General Council pronounces a solemn definition, this is an exercise of the extraordinary Magisterium. This also includes ex cathedra definitions by the Pope, which definitely settled the matter. It is based on this that the Feeneyites believe that because the Extraordinary is superior to the Ordinary Magisterium (which is true), that the latter can simply be ignored when convenient (which is erroneous). Certainly, the many pronouncement by Popes (Innocent II, Innocent III, Pius IX and Pius XII) come from thoroughly orthodox men who could not conceivably contradict their own infallible statements on salvation. Finally, there is at least one ex cathedra statement which should settle the matter.
An important declaration comes from the Decree on Justification issued by the Sixth Session of the Council of Trent, which refutes Protestant errors concerning Baptism and justification (the reception of sanctifying grace into the soul). It declares in the preface that
Justification is a passing from the state in which man is born a son of the first Adam, to the state of grace and adoption of sons of God [through Jesus Christ]. After the promulgation of the gospel this passing cannot take place without the water of regeneration or the desire for it.... [emphasis added]
This remark prefaces a series of ex cathedra pronouncements on justification. Most important is the ex cathedra declaration issued at the Seventh Session (Canons on the Sacraments in General). Please note, this statement is de fide, of the Extraordinary Magisterium, and must be held by all Catholics:
If anyone says that the sacraments of the New Law are not necessary for salvation, but that they are superfluous; and that men can, without the sacraments or the desire for them, obtain the grace of justification by faith alone, although it is true that not all the sacraments are necessary for each individual: let him be anathema [emphasis added].
Need any more be said? Just to confirm this, however, it is worth quoting the Catechism of the Council of Trent (the authoritative catechism from which all subsequent pastoral teaching is derived):
should any unforeseen accident deprive adults of baptism, their intention of receiving it, and their repentance for past sins, will avail them to grace and righteousness.
As recent as this century, we read in the Catechism of St. Pius X (9a. Qu. 29):
Q. But if a man through no fault of his own is outside the Church, can he be saved?
A. If he is outside the Church through no fault of his, that is, if he is in good faith, and if he has received Baptism, or at least has the implicit desire of Baptism; and if, moreover, he sincerely seeks the truth and does God's will as best he can such a man is indeed separated from the body of the Church, but is united to the soul of the Church and consequently is on the way of salvation.
Concluding Remarks on Baptism and Salvation
Catholics must base their religious beliefs on the authority of the Church. The very reason that Our Lord established this teaching authority was to avoid the error, schism and confusion which has racked other "Christian" sects from the beginning. It is true that traditional Catholics face many problems due to the rampant modernism since Vatican II. Nevertheless, orthodox teaching on the Sacraments, including Baptism (which treats of baptism of blood and desire) is there for all Catholics to refer to. Contrary to the Protestants, the Modernists or the Feeneyites, doctrine has not changed over the past 2000 years.
It is by the grace of Christ's sacrifice that justification by Baptism (ordinarily of water, and, by extension, of blood and desire) is made possible. Further, St. Cyprian's statement extra ecclesium nulla salus remains intact. There is no question of individuals being saved by their own efforts, without God's grace, and therefore outside the Church. On the contrary, it is stated that because these individuals are holding to the true teaching of Christ that they are joined invisibly to the Church. Thus, strictly speaking, one does not say "non-Catholics may be saved" or "Protestants can go to heaven if...." There are no non-Catholics in the Church and there are no non-Catholics in heaven. The only souls in heaven are those who (to refer to the Council of Trent) have joined themselves to the Church in fact or desire.
Naturally one is inclined to ask, "who is saved?" Integral apologists explain that Baptism of desire extends to those who are outwardly Protestants and, in some cases, possibly even to non-Christians. On this point (and not on the matter of Baptism of desire itself) there is room for opinion, so long as it avoids the obvious liberal error of implying that salvation is either easy or common for non-Catholics.
Not surprisingly, the redoubtable St. Augustine pondered the question of salvation for those outside the visible Church. In De Vera Religione he discusses those material heretics (men who were heretics by force of circumstance and not by free choice) when he speaks of
good men expelled from the Christian Congregation by the turbulent sedition of carnal men... The Father, who sees in secret, crowns these men in secret. This kind of men seems quite rare, though examples are not lacking; they are even more numerous than one could think.
St. Augustine's masterwork, The City of God, is in large part a mystical contemplation of the economy of salvation and likewise deals with this question. Ultimately, however, the numbers of saved and lost remains a mystery in this life. In closing, we would do best to follow the advice of Fr. Laisney
To the question, "Lord, are there few that are saved?" Our Lord answered: "strive to enter by the narrow gate!" (Lk. 13:24). To this speculative question, Our Lord gave a practical answer, as St. Paul: "Know you not that they that run in a race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize? So run that you may obtain! (I Cor. 9:24).... God does not want all these pagans to be damned. He wants you to pray for them, He wants you to make sacrifices for them, He wants you to "sanctify yourself for them" (Jn. 17:19); He wants you "to go forth and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost!"
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